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A Deeper Look at First and Onlys

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One of the best things to come out of this election season is how gender has re-entered the public arena and political debate. In previous election years, women have been relegated to the background. But in 2008, issues of gender and power are very much in the forefront.

I chose to write on the topic of the “first and only,” because it is an important (but not often discussed) reality that numbers matter. We like to think of ourselves as a fair country, beyond the prejudices of yesteryear, where individuals who work hard will be judged on their merits alone. But in truth, until there are enough diverse females in authority so that a chosen few are not expected to speak for an entire race or gender, those few will continue to carry the burden for all. When more women are running for the presidency, say three or four just like the men, the conversation about gender will be replaced by conversations about each woman’s agenda. With one woman, stereotypes abound; often, that “only” woman either has to prove she is “man enough” for the job or find a way to be “tough enough” without losing her appeal as a woman. It’s almost impossible. That isn’t to say that the particular policy concerns about Hillary Clinton or about President Clinton that readers have expressed would disappear, but the issues around gender would be far less pronounced if two other women governors or senators were in the race. If those gender issues are ones you aren’t seeing, let’s take a quick look at how the media are treating this particular one and only.

As much as numbers matter, media matters, and with Clinton, the first powerful woman who has ever been the frontrunner for the presidency, fears about women and power come right to the surface—and not in ways that any of us should be proud of. If you doubt me, check out Kathleen Hall Jamieson talking about the misogyny directed at Clinton in the media (donkey rape and “get back to the dishes” rants included). Or the email that found its way to my inbox this morning encouraging me to buy a t-shirt insisting I put “Bros before Hoes.” Again, I can understand voters or the media disagreeing with Clinton on policy positions or her voting record—it’s a legitimate and important aspect of our democracy to be able to question our leaders. As the President of a non-partisan organization, which does not endorse candidates, I see our job as providing information that levels the playing field as much as possible with regards to gender. So it is in that light that I want to suggest that taking issue with a policy platform is one thing, while the troubling, gender-based treatment that Clinton receives is quite another. I know that most men and women alike are deeply disappointed with the treatment that Clinton often receives in the media; more than just a side-effect of her “Clintonianism,” this kind of rhetoric stems from systemic, embedded fears of women in power, and our country’s historical legacy of gendered discrimination. Remember, we rank 67th in the world in terms of the number of women in our national legislature.

Of course, Clinton is not the only “first and only.” As the first viable black male candidate for the presidency, Senator Obama is also blazing a trail. In the beginning there were frequent conversations about whether he was “black enough” or whether he was an insider or a true “outsider” And I am sure that racism will rear its ugly head soon enough, but the truth is, so far their candidacies have received glaringly disparate media attention. The study by Kathleen Hall Jamieson was originally intended as a web search to look for “racist invective” directed against Obama. Jamieson was surprised when her study instead found so much misogyny directed at Clinton.

I think most Americans are extremely proud that either the first woman or first black man will be a nominee for our nation’s highest post in 2008. But we have so much further to go. When there are enough women running for the presidency, there won’t be signs asking them to “go home and make sandwiches” because their leadership will be normalized. Young men on Facebook will no longer demand that these women go “back to the kitchen,” because these women’s leadership will no longer be circumspect. And talking heads on MSNBC won’t describe our women leaders as “castrating” or “cackling” because such terminology will no longer be acceptable.

I know a vast number of Americans do not ascribe to these prejudices, but it’s not about what we tout as individuals as much as it is about the foundation upon which we live: the news we see, hear, and read; the images which bombard us; the commentary that creeps into our consciousness. If we truly care about the quality of our democracy, we will work to make it more representative, and collectively rail against the systemic inequalities (and their manifestations) which keep us in the realm of “first and onlys.”


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